January 10: A Roomful of Teeth and Some Organized Chaos

This trip is going by so fast!

When I last checked in with you,  I’d taken us only as far as last week’s New York Philharmonic concert, and Friday afternoon’s  Midsummer Night’s Dream videotaping (see the previous two posts).

Friday night (January 10), we all headed down to Greenwich Village for the NYC Winter Jazzfest. There were seemingly countless performances at at least six venues that night. We began with Roomful of Teeth at Judson Church on the NYU campus.  A terrific vocal octet, whom I don’t know I would have put a “jazz” label on had I heard their performance in another context. As far as I could tell, everything was fully composed. Check out their website; they are part of the post-genre era, drawing on many western and non-western influences, commissioning works from composers like Caleb Burhans and Judd Greenstein. Composer Caroline Shaw, a member of the group, won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her work Partita, movements of which were performed at that concert.

Most everyone else went off to explore other events. I was having a lot of (thankfully very temporary) leg pain, and having snared an actual front-row balcony chair–it was a mostly standing event–I decided to stay put. A good friend was with me. Neither one of us liked the Mary Halvorson Septet which followed, and my companion wanted to move on. It seemed much less coherent than Roomful. Oh, heck, it was much less coherent than Roomful. But that made me want to stay and listen. Sometimes I like incoherent music, and my improvisation students and I have found that listening closely to seemingly chaotic recordings, we often discover there is a lot more going on than we first hear. Part of it that night was the very casual and messy visual presentation of the group, and they were following a super-organized group. Once I closed my eyes and listened, I enjoyed the music making. So I stayed, and, humoring me, so did my friend.

Nate Chinen in the Times called the set “lean but expansive” and seemed to have liked it; my friend never did, and by the time it was done, my leg felt fine, and I walked her to the subway. I stopped in briefly at the overcrowded Groove, where Otis Brown III was playing, but I realized my ears needed a rest.

Now the question was whether I should go back to the hotel or wait for the 12:30 AM “Improvised Round Robin Duets” back at Judson Church. “Don’t be old tonight” my colleague texted me, and even though I knew I was already tired and I’d pay for it the next day if I was up really late, I decided to follow his advice. After all, I coach my own improvisation students in duets where one person starts, another joins in, a third person takes over from the first, and so on. When else in my life might I get to hear “legendary New York improvisers” (as the evening’s host said in promoting the show) do this kind of chained improvising?

It was amazing–much of the time. I have no idea who the performers were, because they weren’t listed in a program or announced from the stage. If I’d written this a week ago, I’d have a clearer memory of the details. So you’re spared them. What impressed me is that the 90-minute performance started with an extended piano solo before anyone joined the pianist on the stage. There were lots of tremolos, lots of crashes, lots of special effects and soundscape sorts of things. 90% of the time or more there was no steady pulse, so when there was one it was quite powerful. Lots of fragmentation; very little actual melody or melodic development.

Occasionally it was a mess, but a coordinated mess. As my colleague Chris observed, in situations like this you have the choice of listening to the other player and not playing; or matching what the other player is doing, or contrasting with what the other player is doing. He found it tiring after a while; I pretty much loved the entire thing–which is why I’m the improv guy, I suppose. What was interesting to me is areas the performance avoided: extended consonant harmonies, simple grooves, regular phrases, etc. It was mostly restless, dissonant, and often angular music.

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